Does D1 Lacrosse start too early in the year? Are all these February games verging on ridiculous, or is this the way things will go moving forward? Is it good or bad for the game? This issue has been on the minds of many, and it’s an interesting set of questions, so now that we’re seeing it in action, let’s dive right in!
Does D1 Lacrosse Start Too Early?
My initial reaction to college lacrosse games being played in February is that I don’t like it. Not one bit. However, I have to take my own biases and personal experiences into account here, and try to obtain some objectivity.
I grew up playing lacrosse in Massachusetts, which meant the first day of practice occurred when the fields dried up, the gym was open, or the parking lot was plowed. More often than not, it was parking lot time. Teams were far from ready to play before March 1st, and since almost no high schools had turf, it was pretty much out of the question anyway.
In college, I went to D3 Wesleyan, which was blessed with a full size indoor facility (tennis like surface), but again, we didn’t have turf back then (now they have two turf fields). Another factor that clouds my vision is the fact that Wesleyan plays in the NESCAC, and the conference doesn’t allow teams to practice before February 15th. This definitely reinforced my position that “real lacrosse” didn’t start until March.
That’s not me in the photo.
Now that I’m over a decade removed from this experience, I realize things have changed. Turf fields are more abundant than ever. New programs have popped up all over the place, and many are in more southern locales where they can play outdoors as soon as the second semester starts. The thirst for early college lacrosse games has also increased amongst many fans, and spectators in places like North Carolina, Georgia, and other warmer spots get to see some great games right in their backyard.
When you combine these factors with the fact that the season hasn’t moved back at all, an earlier start is almost inevitable. But is it a bad thing, like my inner conscience keeps telling me? Why must it be bad?
In truth, an earlier start isn’t automatically bad at all, but it does cause some problems for certain programs, and it definitely pushes the boundaries of lacrosse being a “spring sport”.
Early Starts Causing Problems
For NESCAC and Ivy League schools, an earlier start is an issue. Both of these athletic conferences limit fall interaction with student-athletes, and they have hard start dates, which can not be broken. This means these northern teams, already more vulnerable to weather issues, also must start later, and that’s an increasingly considerable burden if the season gets earlier.
There are really two options here: 1) The NESCAC and Ivy can continue on with their rules, and continue to deal with a later start date. It’s not the end of the world. 2) A conference could decided to move their start date up, to accommodate a longer season. Either option works.
The bigger issue, which is more pervasive in the north, is that teams hit hard by snow can’t practice on full fields unless they happen to have nice indoor facilities. For the larger D1 programs, this often isn’t a problem. Michigan, OSU, Syracuse, and a host of other big time athletic programs have the facilities to make this happen. For the smaller programs, it’s a MUCH bigger issue. Cornell is a big time program and they still barely got any full field time before they played Syracuse. I understand a trial by fire, but that seems ridiculous.
So while the big time schools play games indoors, what can smaller schools do to deal with limited access to fields? One thing is to schedule games later in the year at home, and schedule Sunday games down south early on, when you can. The Sunday game part is important, because that way you can travel on a Friday, and hopefully get two days outdoors to practice and adjust before playing. Many of the newer southern teams are happy to host northern programs, and while it’s another away game, it’s also not 20 degrees and snowing.
Early Starts Could Help Growth
One thing I’m coming to love about early season lacrosse is the potential for growth in viewership. While webcasts aren’t ideal, most of the ESPN3 product is very solid, and it’s increasingly easy to link your computer up to your TV… while this might not be the optimal way to create viewership, it does create a small buzz, along with headlines, and this can build over the course of the year, especially when games are on actual TV.
More TV coverage is seemingly the best route to the popularization of the sport as it is a constant and huge medium, but for now, high quality webcasts do something to fill the void. Once the TV part of the season does start, there are stories already at play. If ESPN had more flexibility in their programming, this would be great. Maybe some other networks can take advantage of it?
Lacrosse Is No Longer A Northeastern Sport
When I was growing up, people used to say “lacrosse is played all the way from Canada down to Maryland”, and that was kind of it. Things have changed dramatically since then and with that comes an earlier start date. Most of the rest of the country doesn’t get smacked with snow and cold, and that’s life for us Northeasterners, we just need to deal with it. Or build indoor facilities.
The game of lacrosse is going to be played in February and even January. When it’s 75 and sunny in Florida, the kids are going to play. I’m coming around to the idea more and more, and while I’d love to see the season move back a bit to make way for more games, the whole early season debate is starting to tilt.
I see nothing wrong with southern teams getting started earlier in the year. It creates drama when the northern teams enter the fray, and for now, it equalizes the playing field a little bit for newer southern teams. Northern programs can practice in the cold, they can build new facilities, or they can spend time in the gym. It’s still lacrosse, and it’s still good.
I’m actually fine with an early season, but let’s not go past the last week in January, ok? Some schools aren’t even back in session yet, and that just seems a little too insane. At the point we would need to call lacrosse a winter-spring sport. Deal?